An hour after a jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges related to his deadly shootings in August 2020, Mark Stach stood across from the courthouse steps and held a peace sign over his head.
Just a few feet away, a crowd argued over gun rights, vigilantism and racial inequities in the justice system. Some stood nose to nose while quarreling, the spit and obscenities flying as they screamed at each other.
“I don’t think it’s helping,” Stach said about his sign. “But I don’t know what else a guy can do.”
Kyle Rittenhouse’s jury may have found unanimous agreement, but the arguments outside the Kenosha County Courthouse reflect how the country remains bitterly divided over the broader issues that overshadowed a very technical legal question. Since its inception, the case has served as a sort of cultural litmus test, with some seeing in the teenager a hero who used his Second Amendment right to defend himself and others viewing him as a gun-wielding white boy who believed he could impose his own sense of justice.
After a two-week trial with 30 witnesses and multiple videos, perceptions have not changed. Within minutes of Friday’s verdict, gun-rights groups and anti-gun-violence organizations issued statements respectively cheering and jeering the decision. Several Congressional Democrats decried it, while the most conservative Republicans offered the teen internship opportunities.
“The verdict is pretty consistent with our history as a country and our recent history,” said Alvin B. Tillery Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. “Armed white men and their anger are given great deference in our court systems.”
A Rittenhouse family spokesman said the teen wants the two sides to come together, but the vitriolic scene that played out on the courthouse steps following his verdict suggests that won’t happen soon.
“Kyle is a patriot who exercised his Second Amendment rights,” Ryan Walker, who lives across the border in Lake County, Illinois, shouted at a group protesting the verdict. “He has a God-given right to self-defense, and you refuse to admit it.”
“We’re going to arm all our Black 17-year-olds in Milwaukee and send them down here to police the town however they want,” activist Vaun Mayes shouted at Rittenhouse supporters. “You probably won’t feel the same way about the Second Amendment and self-defense when that happens.”
Rittenhouse and the men he shot were in downtown Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, amid social unrest following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer. Then 17 and living in north suburban Antioch, Rittenhouse inserted himself into the tumult by jumping at a chance to guard a used car lot with an AR-15-style rifle that prosecutors say a friend illegally purchased for him. He boasted in pre-shooting interviews of his intention to provide first aid services to those in attendance, falsely claiming he was a certified medic.
A predominantly white jury found that he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and seriously injured Gaige Grosskreutz. They also acquitted him of charges he recklessly endangered the lives of two other people when he fired his weapon.
Kenosha Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed a misdemeanor gun charge against Rittenhouse shortly before closing arguments, saying it wasn’t clear whether 17-year-olds were allowed to openly carry loaded regulation-size rifles under Wisconsin law. He also dismissed a curfew violation ticket against Rittenhouse midway through the trial.
Schroeder gave Rittenhouse wide latitude to present his defense, offering rulings that local attorneys say are standard for the state’s longest-serving circuit judge and that legal experts said a just society should want for all defendants. But for some people watching on television — particularly people of color — the case became a symbol of racial inequities in the justice system when it comes to who has the ability, and money, to tell their side of the story.
“I’m a 60-year-old Black woman, so I’m not surprised by anything that happens,” said Lavita Booker of Milwaukee, as she shivered outside the courthouse following the verdict. “I just know that if Kyle’s name was Calvin or Kalief, I don’t think the result would be the same.”
Rittenhouse’s attorney denied that race played a factor in the outcome of the case, but he acknowledged that financial resources made a difference. At least two gun-rights groups raised money to pay legal fees, and conservative lawyer John Pierce, who represented Rittenhouse for a few months, bailed him out of jail with $2 million raised, in part, with help from actor Ricky Schroder and My Pillow founder Mike Lindell.
Since parting ways with Pierce, Rittenhouse’s mother, Wendy, has taken over fundraising for her son’s legal fees, according to prosecutors. In October, the defense fund tweeted it had raised more than $650,000, and it continued to accept donations after the verdict.
“If you have the financial resources you can fight the government foot to foot and toe to toe, and it makes a difference,” Rittenhouse’s defense attorney Mark Richards told the Tribune after the verdict. “I don’t think it’s race. I don’t.”
The scene on the courthouse steps was a spectacle rarely seen at even the most high-profile trials, reflecting the passions stirred by the Rittenhouse trial and the opportunity to broadcast arguments — even those filled with easily disproved facts about the case — to a rapt world.
The crowd, not including the much larger swarm of photographers and reporters, numbered just a few dozen, far smaller than the one that besieged Kenosha for three violent days last year.
Kenosha resident Lisa Dalton, who said her family cowered inside their home during the unrest, hailed Rittenhouse’s actions and said he inspired her to purchase bullets for the handgun she inherited from her father. The firearm had not been used, or even loaded, since her dad’s death four years ago.
“But now I’m ready in case I ever need it,” she said as she stood on the steps. “This verdict sends a good message that if you attack somebody in the streets and they defend themselves, they’re going to be within their rights. Mob rule doesn’t rule, and we’re not going to be intimidated.”
No single faction of protesters dominated the courthouse steps over the four days of jury deliberations, creating a free speech zone that led to furious and sometimes incoherent disputes between those pushing for Rittenhouse’s conviction, those claiming he acted in righteous self-defense and those on a different wavelength altogether.
Before the verdict, some found the confrontations to be almost reassuring.
“What I’ve seen is people who’ve been arguing back and forth in each other’s faces and then drink from the same case of water, or share snacks, or say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ and come back the next day and go right back at it,” said Bishop Tavis Grant, national field director of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a courthouse regular.
“People on those steps are kind of figuring it out, that this is a free space. I have an opportunity to say as much as I want and you do, too. And quite honestly, some of them just run out of things to say, and then at the end of the day share a cigarette. That provides an opportunity for something different than violence and mayhem.”
The steps cleared a few hours after the verdict, and a few blocks away, Leaders of Kenosha, a local activist group that plans to run a slate of candidates for municipal offices next year, held a news conference in which speakers promised to continue what they called a fight for justice.
When it wrapped, Erick Jordan stood at the back, a Smith & Wesson AR-style rifle — the same type used by Rittenhouse — slung over his shoulder.
The stay-at-home dad, who is Black, said he frequently carries his weapon openly in Kenosha to provide security at events. He said guns have not been an unusual sight at the city’s demonstrations, but until Rittenhouse arrived, no one got shot there.
Asked how the trial and its climax have affected the town, he gave a shrug.
“Right now it’s looking like we’re gonna be pretty much the same as we were before this all happened, just piece by piece working on building the relationship,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten worse. I don’t think we’ve gotten better, either. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Rittenhouse is scheduled to give his first interview Monday on Fox News.
Tribune reporters Megan Crepeau and Angie Leventis Lourgos contributed.